Every Monday throughout the college basketball season, I will be giving out my Top 25 teams in the country. Next week the Top 25 will be back like it never left, however with a handful of games canceled due to COVID-19 problems and an overall light slate last week, we are changing it up.
Going into the new year is always a great time to take a step back and look over everything we have seen to start off the non-conference slate. When you start to compare what your expectations were going into the season to the current product we have seen for the past seven weeks, differences and disappointments and surprises start to emerge.
Today, I’ll be looking at my "5 Pleasantly Surprising" and "5 Most Disappointing" teams in college basketball to start the season. These teams are in no particular order, as picking just 10 teams in total to fit into each category was difficult, with there being a ton of appealing options.
Arizona: There were many, who believed that talent that Sean Miller left behind for Tommy Lloyd may be good enough for a decent Year 1 of a new era in Tucson. However, after what Arizona has been through the last few seasons - without an NCAA Tournament win since 2017, no one could've seen this coming. Even though Sean Miller had a great run and his teams always had the talent, it feels like Lloyd has already done a great job using that talent within his effective offensive system and it’s working to perfection. With a future NBA lottery pick in Benedict Mathurin, Azuolas Tubellis continuing to dominate the college game, Kerr Kriisa and Christian Koloko's rapid improvement, Arizona's start to the season has been nearly flawless. The Wildcats started off the season unranked and jumped to as high as the No. 6 team in the country prior to their first loss of the season against Tennessee. This is after prior to the season being predicted to finish tied for 4th in the Pac 12 with Oregon State. With a pair of Big Ten wins over Michigan and at Illinois, it’s safe to call the out of conference slate for Tommy Lloyd at Arizona a success.
Iowa State: It’s very rarely that a major College Basketball award is already wrapped up by the end of the month of December. Yet, TJ Otzelberger who has the Iowa State Cyclones at 12-0 with wins over Xavier, Memphis, Creighton and Iowa seemingly all but has the National Coach of the Year award wrapped up. There are plenty of teams around the country with better wins than that, but what makes this so impressive is that Iowa State won a total of two games last year and ended the season 2-21 overall and 0-18 in the Big 12.
To its credit, Iowa State was one of the more aggressive teams in the transfer portal this offseason, as they picked up Izaiah Brockington, Gabe Kalsheur, Tristan Enaruna, Caleb Grill and Aljaz Kunc from the portal and Tyrese Hunter as a top 100 freshman Point Guard. All of these additions are playing heavy minutes for the Cyclones and are making major impacts in different ways by all doing something different well. In a sport, where many coaches have failed to use the transfer portal properly it’s refreshing to see coaches actually fix some needs with big additions. Despite all of the big wins listed earlier, Otzelberger did a great job setting up Iowa State’s non-conference schedule with some easier bye games to gain some confidence. Even if you change coaches and players, turning around a program that won just two games a season prior is a challenging task considering how tough it gets the demons of losing out of the locker room. By setting up a non-conference schedule that wasn’t too hard but also wasn’t too easy at the same time, Iowa State is sitting at No. 9 in the AP poll as they head into Big 12 Conference play. Just an amazing story after the way this team struggled last year.
Minnesota: After another disappointing season in 2020-2021, the consensus opinion was that Minnesota should move on from a coach that had some up and down results in Richard Pitino. The problem was that Minnesota replaced him with Ben Johnson, who was a hire that seemingly no one approved - or even heard of - even as a former Minnesota and Xavier assistant coach. And it's not like things got better when he arrived at Minnesota, as the Gophers all of their top seven scorers from last season to the transfer portal. This included Marcus Carr (Texas), Gabe Kalsheur (Iowa State) and Both Gatch (Utah) who are all playing prominent roles on their new teams. The Gophers replaced these guys, with George Washington transfer in Jameson Battle, Charleston transfer Payton Willis, William & Mary transfer Luke Loewe and Eric Curry who has been battling serious knee injuries for the last part of 4 years.
Going into the season, this is a team that was not only voted last in the preseason media poll in the Big 10 but was expected by many to be the worst Power 6 team in the sport. Instead, Minnesota has picked up road wins over Mississippi State, Michigan and Western Kentucky. They have already accomplished more in the non-conference slate than a lot of people expected them to do throughout the course of the season. Considering Minnesota does play in a league where there are going to be a handful of chances for quality wins, and their only loss came against a good Michigan State squad, maybe these Gophers can hear their name called on Selection Sunday. No matter what happens, Ben Johnson has done an outstanding job leading his guys in year one and his time in Minneapolis couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
Providence: Ed Cooley is one of those coaches who seems to do his best when his back is against the wall. This is a guy who in 2013 won the Big East Tournament during the first year of the old Big East while on the bubble, beating Creighton and Doug McDermott who averaged over 25 points per game that season in the championship game. No one was expecting Providence to not only pull that out, but make it to 5 consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 2013-2017. After missing the last two NCAA Tournaments, and a good 2020 Friar team not having a chance to play in the tournament, Cooley was due for a big year and he has delivered. Providence won at Wisconsin who was missing Johnny Davis however, the metrics don’t factor in injuries. Plus wins over ranked Texas Tech and UConn teams won’t hurt at all. What makes this Providence team dangerous is that they have a great combination of toughness, balance and being well coached. Providence’s defense was able to frustrate a UConn team that can score the ball, enough to pick up a road victory to start off Big East play. AJ Reeves finally is playing like the pressure is off his back and he had 16 huge points in the win over UConn. Nate Watson has 4 years' experience of playing in the Big East under his belt and won’t be phased by anything, plus Indiana transfer Al Durham is averaging 12.9 points per game and looks like a new player under Ed Cooley. Providence was projected to finish 7th in the Big East, behind teams like Butler and St. John's - neither of which is currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament. The Big East is one of the 2 or 3 best leagues in the country and doesn’t have one terrible team that comes to mind. Ed Cooley has Providence with a legit shot to win the league going into conference play.
Wake Forest: The only Power 6 school to hire a new coach during the 2020 offseason in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was Wake Forest bringing in Steve Forbes from East Tennessee State. His final year at ETSU, Forbes' team was in position to make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in 4 years as they won the Southern Conference regular season and conference tournament title. For a hire that didn’t have much buzz around it at the time, both sides couldn't have asked for a better start as Wake is currently sitting at 11-1 as they head into ACC play. Although their wins haven’t been over anyone spectacular, the fact that Wake is even in this position in only Year 2 under Forbes is way ahead of schedule considering how the program looked when he got there. Wake is already 1-0 in ACC with a blowout 80-61 road win over Virginia Tech on December 4th. Those were the types of wins Wake never seemed to get in Danny Manning’s final years and that was when he was able to bring in significant talent. The Demon Deacons had failed to make the NCAA Tournament in each of the past four years and we’re slotted in at No. 13 in the Preseason ACC poll coming into the season. Going into conference play, they now have a legitimate argument for the second or third best team in the ACC. Oklahoma transfer Alondes Williams is playing like a first team all-conference player by averaging 21 points per game and this is after last year at Oklahoma where he averaged 6.7 points per game. Guys like Jake LaRavia, Davien Williamson, Dallas Walton and Khadeem Sy are all making an impact from the transfer portal as well. Wake Forest is the only team in the ACC to play better than people expected going into the season which means there is no doubt they can take advantage of some teams that have underachieved it looks like they might be better then.
Just Missed: Baylor, Davidson DePaul, San Fransisco, Wisconsin
Florida State: If anyone can be forgiven for a letdown season its Leonard Hamilton. Coach Ham has done a phenomenal job in Tallahassee, especially during his run over the past five years. Florida State, along with Michigan and Gonzaga are the only three teams in college basketball who have made the Sweet 16 each of the last three NCAA Tournaments. Those results combined with producing a number of NBA players like Scottie Barnes, Jonathan Isaac, Malik Beasley, Patrick Williams, Devin Vassel and more is when expectations are raised. Unfortunately, this year's Seminoles team doesn’t seem to have the same potential as some of years past. They have already gotten blown out by a Florida team that they have owned since Mike White arrived in Gainesville. In addition, they suffered a 3-game losing streak in early December which included losses to Syracuse at home, a 28-point loss to Purdue and a loss to South Carolina. It was reasonable to expect a little bit of a decline for a program that has lost so much talent to the NBA, but Leonard Hamilton has done such a good job with this program that your almost shocked when they’re not good especially when they have some talent including Caleb Mills, Anthony Polite and good young players in Matthew Cleveland, John Butler and Jalen Warley. However, these guys just might not be NBA lottery picks like some of the other players this program has recently lost and no matter which program you are, that is bound to catch up with you. Florida State can definitely turn it around and take advantage of an underachieving ACC Conference but they’re right in the middle of that list.
Louisville: This season was doomed from the start for the Cardinals, as their head coach Chris Mack was suspended six games to start the season for “failing to follow school policies in handling his former assistant’s extortion attempt.” Louisville did fail to make the NCAA Tournament last year and this team was definitely worse than last year with the losses of guys like Carlik Jones and David Johnson. However, no one expected it to be this bad this quickly as Louisville has already lost to Furman and DePaul at home and got run off the gym by Western Kentucky. Chris Mack is a good coach but no matter who you are, if you’re at Louisville and miss the tournament and suffer multiple embarrassing losses in non-conference play in a span of the year you should expect your seat to be hot. What’s disappointing is that Mack did a pretty solid job his first few years in town. It was only two years ago, that Louisville was led by an NBA player in Jordan Nwora and was ranked No. 1 in all of college basketball. Unfortunately, since then it’s all gone downhill. Carlik Jones was a home run that Chris Mack should feel proud of, Louisville should not be adding their starting Point Guard from Marshall or fail to have someone average more than 10.5 points per game right now. Samuel Williamson has never developed, and Jaelyn Withers has really regressed. Having Noah Locke, Jarrod West, Dre Davis and Malik Williams as role players are fine but when you're relying on them to win you games is when you get in trouble.
Memphis: As someone who witnessed the start of the Memphis tailspin at Barclays Center when they lost to Iowa State, disappointing to start the Tigers season is an understatement. From all of the hype they had at the beginning to the pure sadness that came with their game against Tennessee getting canceled due to COVID-19 problems the season has been nothing short of a headache. Memphis came into the season with some hype and it’s not only because Penny Hardaway is their coach, and he has no problem bringing in talent. This is a team that returned a majority of the core that won last year's NIT and really was one of the best 68 teams in the field but ended up getting left out due to the fact that their resume didn’t have enough quality wins. In Year 4 of the Penny Hardaway era, those returners from the NIT team plus a pair of five-star freshman Emoni Bates and Jalen Duran were supposed to bring the Tigers back to the top of college basketball. Instead, they lost games to Georgia and Ole Miss who are looking like two of the worst teams in the SEC and they also lost at home to Murray State. To their credit, Memphis was able to pick up their biggest win of the season over a very good Alabama team, but that win isn’t aging great as Alabama just lost to Davidson and Memphis’ other opportunity at gaining a marquee win to try and dig themselves out of this hole against Tennessee was canceled and it was revealed Penny Hardaway had no clue about the vaccination status of his players. With Houston facing devastating injuries, Memphis may have a chance to win the AAC based on talent alone based on Houston losing Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark for the season in a week. However, we definitely haven’t seen Kelvin Sampson and his squad can definitely deliver even with the injuries.
Oregon: In a similar way to Leonard Hamilton and Florida State, Dana Altman has done such a good job at Oregon since he got to Eugene that when they’re not good you’re surprised. One common theme with Dana Altman’s teams is that they usually contain a bunch of new faces so they always start slow and it usually takes them a lot of time to really hit their stride. Those teams that usually start slow always do start playing their best basketball at the time of year that matters most as Oregon has made seven out of the last eight NCAA Tournaments, has three Sweet 16 appearances, plus an Elite 8 and Final 4 appearance. With that being said, in 2020 even though Oregon was going to make the NCAA Tournament, if it doesn’t get canceled the vibe around that team never felt right. They had an NBA player in Payton Pritchard, who was so good that he would bail them out by making all of these crazy shots especially late in games. However, around their leader it was just 10 guys who were all good, but no one had an established role, and it was getting to a point where it was late in the season in March.
Well, that is exactly what this Oregon team feels like just because they don’t have Payton Pritchard. After being picked second in the Pac 12 Preseason poll, Oregon has started the season 7-6 overall and 0-2 in Pac-12 Conference play. The Ducks have fallen to Saint Mary's and Houston in blowout fashion by 29. Losing to underachieving conference foes like Stanford and Oregon State really hurts your slim chances as there’s a chance all confidence might be gone by January. Transfers De’vion Harmon, and Quincy Guerrier haven’t lived up to the hype, and Will Richardson has taken the jump many expected going into his 4th year of school. The Pac 12 is weak, and Oregon still has the talent despite Dana Altman having a lot of work to do with this group.
Virginia: The ACC is as bad as it’s been in recent memory, so it makes sense that Virginia is the third team from the league on this list. As great as Tony Bennett and the pack line defense has been at Virginia over the course of the past decade, this is the first time since his run at Virginia started that Tony Bennett doesn’t have an NBA player. From Joe Harris to Malcom Brogdon, to Kyle Guy to Ty Jerome to DeAndre Hunter to Mamadi Diakite and Trey Murphy, Virginia has always had that one guy. Sometimes, in a sport like College Basketball where there are many things that may seem very complicated to the viewer over the course of the season it’s simple. Virginia’s offense has never been great, everyone knows their defense has been the key for success in Tony Bennett’s run in Charlottesville but when his teams were great there was always that one guy who could get them a basket when they needed it most. Many forget that if it wasn’t for DeAndre Hunter’s game tying three late in overtime or Kyle Guy’s free throws in the Final 4 against Auburn, or Mamadi Diakite’s game tying buzzer beater in the Elite 8, that the National Championship never happens.
This group of Cavaliers, unfortunately, hasn't had that playmaker rise up yet. Armaan Franklin and Jaylen Gardiner were two players that Virginia was happy to get and can definitely contribute on winning teams but when you’re relying on them for baskets late in a close game down the stretch when you’re playing in the ACC can get you in trouble. In addition, Virginia has lost some really good players who they may not have expected to lose early when they arrived including Murphy who transferred in from Rice and after only one year at Virginia was the 17th overall pick in the NBA draft. Even with the loss of Murphy, Virginia was predicted to finish fourth in the ACC thanks to having a guy like Bennett on the sidelines. However, in a new era of college basketball that some coaches will adjust better to than others. At places like Virginia and Villanova the players who thrive there are usually the ones that mostly sit the bench for a year or two and then have everything down by year 3. In the transfer portal era, who is going to want to sit the bench for more than a year, especially with a team that plays the style Virginia does? Tony Bennett is still one of the best coaches in the country but in a similar way to Dabo Swinney in Football these next few years could be make or break for Tony Bennett’s final legacy as he will either show his ability to adapt or Virginia is in trouble.
Just Missed: Arkansas, Michigan, Oregon State, St.Johns, Texas, Virginia Tech
Follow Zac on Twitter @ZKrull3